bureaucracybusters

TREATING ADULTS LIKE CHILDREN

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics, Social commentary on February 18, 2016 at 12:15 am

In the 1992 courtroom drama, “A Few God Men,” Jack Nicholson, as Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup, utters a line that has since become famous. 

When his prosecutor, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) demands the truth about the murder of a fellow Marine, Jessup shouts: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Related image

Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”

Apparently, many of those who work in the television news business feel the same way about their audience.

[WARNING: This column contains some words that some readers may find offensive.  Read on at your own risk.]  

On February 9, businessman Donald Trump scored a new blow at his Rafael “Ted” Cruz, his closest rival for the Republican Presidential nomination.  

Speaking at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Trump attacked Cruz, the United States Senator from Texas, for being unwilling to support the widespread use of torture against America’s Islamic enemies.  

“He’s a pussy!” yelled a woman in the crowd.

Apparently a certain portion of the attendees didn’t hear–or misheard–the insult. So Trump–pretending to be shocked–repeated it for them: 

“She said–I never expect to hear that from you again!  She said: ‘He’s a pussy.’ That’s terrible.”  

“What kind of people do I have here?” joked Trump, clearly playing to the boisterous crowd.

Donald Trump

The incident went viral on social media. But all the major TV news outlets–for ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC–bleeped the word and/or coyly referred to it as “the P-word.”

It was as if they assumed their viewers would of course know what had been said despite the networks’ censorship of it. And if viewers didn’t already know what the woman–and Trump–had said, the networks weren’t going to enlighten them.

Of course, “the P-word” could just as easily have been “prick” or “pervert.” So it’s understandable that many viewers might have thought a very different word had been used.  

No doubt the networks hoped to avoid offending large numbers of viewers.  

But when the use of certain words becomes central to a news story, editors and reporters should have the courage to reveal just what was said. It should then be up to the audience to decide if the language was offensive–and, if so, if its user deserves condemnation.  

The evening news is–supposedly–aimed at voting-age adults. And adults need–and deserve–the hard truth about the world they live in. Only then do they have a chance to reform it–if, in fact, they decide it needs reforming.

Those who wanted to learn–rather than guess–what Trump had repeated had to turn to the Internet or to a handful of news source such as Vox: Policy and Politics.

In their defense, the networks could argue that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radio and television, does not usually permit the word “pussy” to be aired between 6 am and 10 pm.  

On the other hand, immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks, all the major TV networks endlessly replayed the destruction of the World Trade Center, with the resulting deaths of hundreds of men and women.

Censorship, then, tends to center on two types of subject material:

  1. Sex, or “obscenity,” which is sex-related; and
  2. Race, meaning racial slurs that would offend some minority group. 

An example of race-related censorship occurred during the short-lived administration of President Gerald R. Ford.  

During a lull in the 1976 Republican convention, entertainer Pat Boone asked Earl Butz, then Secretary of Agriculture: Why was the party of Lincoln having so much trouble winning black votes for its candidates? 

“I’ll tell you what the coloreds want,” said Butz. “It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit.” 

Unknown to Butz, a Rolling Stone reporter was standing nearby. When his comments became public, Butz was quickly forced to resign. 

Meanwhile, most TV and print media struggled to protect their audiences from the truth of Butz’ racism. Many newspapers simply reported that Butz had said something too obscene to print. Some invited their readers to contact the editors if they wanted more information. 

TV newsmen generally described Butz’ firing as stemming from “a racially-offensive remark,” which they refused to explain. 

In short: A high-ranking government official had been fired, but audiences were not allowed to judge whether his language justified that termination. 

Forty years later, TV news viewers were again prevented from reaching their own conclusions about Trump’s repetition of the slur aimed at his rival.  

Nor is there any guarantee that such censorship will not occur again. 

Censoring the truth has always been a hallmark of dictatorships. It has no place in a democracy–despite the motives of those doing the censoring. 

The ancient historian, Plutarch, sounded a warning that remains timely: 

“And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.”

In a democracy, citizens must be alert for those tell-tale expressions or jests. And this demands that the media, in turn, have the courage to bring those truths to their attention.

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